On not finishing books and dentists!

You’d think that by my nearly mid-fifties I’d have grown out of not finishing books, wouldn’t you?  Life’s too short, the TBR’s too big and all that. Yet generally I desperately still want to finish reading any book I start.  There’s no ‘owing it to the author to give their book a fair read’ duty to this, I’m coming to the feeling that it’s mostly ‘hope’ that keeps me going, an optimistic outlook that hopes that a book that I’m stuck in, or not enjoying turns around by the end. Combine that the the sense of personal challenge, and that generally keeps me reading. It’s rare for me to give up on a book, but I did on the following one:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

ferris

I really enjoyed Ferris’s first novel Then we came to the end about office politics, downsizing and corporate management gobbledegook – I recognised elements of the latter in particular from the multinational I used to work for. I read it pre-blog and in my spreadsheet my capsule review says the following:

“On a normal workday you spend more time with your colleagues than your family and are forced into relationships with people you probably don’t like. Add a failing business where people are getting laid off one by one, and everyone else is scared witless that it’ll be them next – this makes for some strained behaviour which is exploited to the full in this novel.
By turns comic and sad, but always with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, my only complaint was it was too long; it was a bit flabby in parts and 300 pages would have been a better length. There were just some of the team I just couldn’t care less about that I got bored with, and others like Joe the supervisor who we never really got to know at all – but that was probably deliberate! I did love the bit with the Office Co-ordinator checking serial numbers on chairs (believe me that really happens!).”

Anyway I was looking forward to reading his new one which is about a dentist – especially as I’ve just had £1000 worth of root canal and crown work done!

It started well. The main character, dentist Paul O’Rourke, narrates the whole book as a monologue and the following paragraph is from the second page:

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. THat he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself. The ailing bits he tried to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tried to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and molars stand erect as tombstones.

Soon after though Paul starts rambling, and essentially he rambles his way through the whole book. About golf, the Red Sox, his love-life or lack of, and especially religion and the meaning of life.  For an atheist, he seems to want something to believe in – and when a departing client commits identity theft and starts posting religious comments, from the devout to the weird to the nasty in his name – the rest of the book gets obsessed by him wallowing in it.  I lasted until about page 75, and then very quickly skimmed my way through the rest.  I’m glad I didn’t bother.  The main character is so tedious.

If the book has one saving grace – it’s Betsy Conrad – Paul’s super-efficient dental hygienist. She’s sixty, a widow, a devout Catholic and all round good egg whose role is to constantly question Paul and keep him running on the right track.

I’d come out of the bathroom and she’d be standing right there, “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she’d say. “Where have you been?” I’d tell her the obvious, she’d say, “Why must you call it the Thunderbox?” I’d tell her, adding a few details , and she’d grow severe, she’d say, ‘”Please do not refer to what you do in the bathroom as ‘making the pope’s fountain.’ I know the pope is just a joke to you. I know the Catholic Church is nothing but a whetting stone for your wit. But I happen to hold the church in the highest regard, and though you can’t understand that, if you had any respect for me you would mind what you say about the pope.”

There are some really funny moments, and some passages that are brilliantly written particularly about work (again), but they get lost amongst all the psycho-babble about the meaning of life and finding yourself, and Paul being so self-centred. Ferris can write though, and I’ll certainly read more of him hoping that his best is yet to come.

P.S. I did like the epilogue though… (DNF)

For another take on this novel, see Rachel’s review at Book Snob

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, pub Penguin Viking, May 2014, Hardback 352 pages.

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Authors & Book Groups – an event with Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar

On a balmy evening, we were out in the courtyard at Mostly Books for a precursor evening to Independent Booksellers Week (28th June to 5th July – find out more here). Mark and Nikki had managed to get not one but two lovely authors, Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar, to discuss the topic “What makes a good book group book?” with the gathered audience.P1020122 (3)

First let me introduce you to the authors: Kate on the left is an award-winning poet and writes for radio, her memoir Antigona and Me (which I reviewed here back in the early days of this blog) is the true story of Kate’s cleaner when she lived in London – a Korsovan refugee, and truly is a good book for discussion. Recently Kate wrote the Costa-nominated Meeting the English – which is a gloriously funny Hampstead comedy about a young Scotsman who comes down to London for a job, (I’ll be reviewing it shortly for Shiny New Books).

On the right, Louise, by contrast, comes from the world of journalism via Smash Hits and Marie-Claire. She writes psychological thrillers and her latest is The Hidden Girl about a couple that move to the country to create the perfect life into which to bring a child. Her previous novels The Playdate and Accidents Happen have been big hits. (I’m nearly 100 pages into Accidents Happen, which is set in Oxford, at the moment and it’s getting really interesting and not a little scary.)

The evening started off by bookshop owner Mark chatting with Kate and Louise about their bookgroup experiences.  Both have been to bookgroups as visiting authors, but are not members of one. Interestingly, Kate said that she found that as an author, when she’d tried to be a member her opinions tended to be taken too seriously and that inhibited the other members, so although she has friends in lovely groups, she won’t now join them.

Both authors said that when they visit book groups, it’s the diplomatic thing to either not join the group at the start, or to withdraw before the end of the meeting – so those who didn’t like the book but have been too polite to say so can get their chance! Louise was surprised at the way people tend to talk about her novels at book groups – it’s not the suspense that generates the discussion, but the underlying family issues.

Kate and Louise then read from their latest books, and the authors answered questions about their writing styles and writing day before returning to the big question of the evening – and the discussion became a free for all.  When actually asked the question what makes a good book group book, no-one in the courtyard could say with any certainty that it is possible to predict, however, everyone agreed that a book that generates more than a ‘s’alright’ opinion is needed. Publicists offering ‘good book group books’ were viewed with a little suspicion – their job is ultimately to generate sales. The audience was divided over the value of book group reading guides at the back of books, a few felt they’re patronising, others like them.

Nearly everyone in the audience, bar the authors themselves, were members of a book group, and there was just one male other than the shop staff present. This inevitably led to some discussion over how men and women read differently, and whether men tend perhaps to be a little more reticent about discussing the books they read in book groups. There was a huge variety in how book groups in the audience run themselves and choose their books too. Some are quite formal – choosing from a short-list suggested by the shop and/or meet in the shop for serious discussion; some take it in turns to host and maybe the host chooses the next book; others like mine are quite informal and meet in the pub, (as we‘re too lazy to host at home like the neutral setting and beer).

Both authors were absolutely lovely to talk to, and really easy to engage with. It was a very pleasant evening indeed.

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To explore works by these authors on Amazon UK, please click below:
Meeting the English, Antigona and Me, Newborn (Picador Poetry) – by Kate Clanchy – all paperbacks.
The Hidden Girl(hardback), Accidents Happen, The Playdate (paperbacks) by Louise Millar.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter…

Simon T of Stuck in a Book has started off a new meme… he will assign those wanting to take part a random letter, and you then choose your favourite things beginning with that letter in these categories:

                • Favourite Book
                • Favourite Author
                • Favourite Song
                • Favourite Film
                • Favourite object.

… and I got a

D

So here we go – it’s harder than it seems … (all links refer back to my original reviews)

Favourite Book:

After perusing my indexes, I had four on the shortlist – three of them were Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon, Double Indemnity by James M Cain and The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner, but the fourth and my ultimate choice is:
donovan's brain
Donovan’s Brian by Curt Siodmak

A Science fiction classic from 1942. See my review here. A teenage favourite, it was even better on re-reading a few years ago.

 

Favourite Author: 

Jill Dawson

I’ve read three of her novels and they’ve not disappointed. I reviewed her latest one, The Tell-Tale Heart for Shiny New Books here, and her previous novel Lucky Bunny here.

The Tell Tale Heart - UK hardback cover

Favourite Song:

 

Dance the Night Away by The Mavericks

A happy song that you can actually dance to. This was the easiest category for me.


Favourite Film:

This one’s more difficult but sticking with films I have actually seen and being a 007 fan I’ll pick…

Diamonds are ForeverDiamonds Are Forever

It was the first Bond film I saw in the cinema as a kid, with my grandma and grandpa one holiday.

And finally, a Favourite Object:

Such a broad topic – but I went with something that makes me smile …

8873350-daisies-background

If you’d like to have a go, pop over to Simon’s post (link back at the top) and wait for your letter.

The Savages are back …

American Savage by Matt Whyman

savagesLast summer I had the pleasure of reading one of the funniest YA novels I’ve yet encountered in Matt Whyman’s The Savages – don’t you just love that cover?  Although it was written as a standalone novel, so many people wondered what happened to the family in it, that Matt has now written a sequel – American Savage.

At this point, if you haven’t read the first one – you should click here to see what I’m talking about, and read no further below for now…

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AMERICAN_SAVAGE (2) The first novel started briefly at the end – with an exquisitely cooked feast from which the Savage family had to flee before flashing back to tell their story.

The sequel sees them safely escaped to America where they’ve settled into the quiet seaside town of Jupiter, Florida.  Titus is a property manager and has gone a little paunchy and Angelica is a fitness freak with an adoring Argentinian personal trainer. Ivan is being bullied at school by the jocks on the football team, big sister Sasha is now at university and doesn’t make an appearance this time, baby Katya is now a Disney princess at primary school. Titus’s centenarian father Oleg lives in a nearby old people’s home where he’s found love again at 103.  Lastly there is lodger Amanda, a vegan who recognises that the Savages’ predilection for a particular kind of meat represents the ultimate in local sourcing and makes this exception.  As before it starts with a feast, and Titus is regarding his table:

Right now, Angelica looked quietly satisfied that she had delivered another unforgettable spread. Titus lifted the spoon to his mouth. Sensing his shirt pull tight across his belly as he did so, the slightest hint of self-loathing soured the mouthful. There was no denying that he had put on a few pounds lately. Ever since the family had moved here, in fact, he found himself climbing onto the scales with a heavy heart, but what could he do about it? He had always taken pride in locally sourcing food for their feasts, and it was inevitable that the meat from these parts would carry a little extra fat. There also tended to be a lot more of it on the bone, and the Savages never left anything to waste.

If you’ve stayed with me, I assume you have twigged what’s different about the Savages. However abhorrent it may be, like Tony and his family in The Sopranos, there’s something strangely lovable about them. They don’t whack people to eat unnecessarily – they are chosen carefully, people who won’t be missed (a bit Dexter-ish don’t you think), then lovingly prepared and consumed at a feast. They eat normally the rest of the time, except for Amanda.

The trouble starts again when Amanda gets a job as a waitress at a sports bar, and refusing to dance for the patrons manages to get it closed down. Unfortunately the bar was owned by the Russian gangster and used for money laundering. The gangster is rumoured to be a cannibal, who ripped off a guy’s ear in prison and ate it raw. He makes threats to Titus and his family – they need a plan. The answer is to reopen as a vegan restaurant – something totally new in Jupiter, Florida, the land of rib-joints.  The only problem is that they make a success of it, and the Russian gets interested again… Set against the main story is Ivan’s battle with his tormentors. Ivan is at a tricky stage of adolescence and needs, in his mind, a way of getting even – how would a Savage do it?

Necessarily, in reading this book, we are in on the secret, and it loses its initial shock value.  However, Whyman again has huge fun with his characters.  The shock of Titus harvesting a victim gets replaced with a different kind of shock when he realises he’s no longer fit enough to do it in that way – the tables are turned, and more resourcefulness is needed.  Through this and other sequences, Whyman is able to have a discussion about food and healthier lifestyles – even eating less, but better quality meat – ha, ha!  By being quite matter of fact about the cannibalism, the book stays on the right side of goriness. There is plenty to laugh about, but the feasts are always treated with reverence.

This family is too much fun to leave to live happily ever after. I’d love to see them in Hollywood or the frozen north of Canada for another adventure or two, and also to read about how Titus met Angelica.  Please…

Why should teenagers have all the fun in reading about the Savages?  In the tradition of The Radleys by Matt Haig (see my review here), both of these novels ought to be crossover hits with adult readers too. I loved this sequel even more than the Savages’ first outing. (9.5/10)

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American Savage (Savages 2) by Matt Whyman. Published by Hot Key Books, June 2014. Paperback, 288 pages.
The Savages by Matt Whyman
The Radleys by Matt Haig

 

An evening with Nick Harkaway

On a sunny Wednesday evening, I headed into town to the newly refurbished barn at the Crown & Thistle in Abingdon to hear author Nick Harkaway talk about his novels and more. (Beer and books make a nice mixture in the sunshine).

Nick is now the author of three novels and one non-fiction book. His latest, Tigerman, has recently been published and I will tell you up front that it is the best novel I’ve read this year (out of fifty read so far), and I shall be reviewing the book for Shiny New Books, issue 2, out at the beginning of July.

DSCF3460-001

Nick and me!

The evening started off with Nick in conversation with Mark from Mostly Books, and it was obvious to me right from the start that Nick is, as Jenny @ReadingtheEnd put later put it on twitter to me, “Sui generis that man!” – definitely one of a kind; intellectual, erudite and well-read, yet loving trashy movies, completely mad, yet intensely sane, and yes, happy! It was a pleasure to meet him and hear him speak – I am now a huge fan.

Nick and Mark started off by immediately digressing off-topic into the genesis of his book The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age. It came out of some blog columns he wrote for The Bookseller on the challenge of e-books and the internet, and he pulled all the ideas together into a discussion about social agency as it relates to technology.

After riffing about the internet to which we returned later, Nick and Mark discussed the genre-busting nature of his three novels. They are all very different in style – The Gone-Away World is a bit SF&F – post-apocalyptic but with ninjas and pirates; Angelmaker has a clockwork repairer, a ninety-year-old former superspy and a doomsday machine; Tigerman is a post-colonial eco-thriller set in a dangerous paradise with superheroes. Harkaway said that “in the UK we are obsessed with taxonomy and putting things into pigeonholes.” He grew up reading wonderful books that defied pigeonholing, and after being a scriptwriter, which is a very enclosed type of writing – you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end – being free to write a novel made him go, “I can do anything!” and so he has done. He hinted that his fourth novel is “completely batshit!” – can’t wait!

There is a development in his writing through the three novels though. The first features two male friends of the same age, the second a Father and grown-up son, and in Tigerman we have a man who wants to become a parent to a lost boy.

tigermanHe told us about the Eureka moment in Thailand when he fired a handgun for the first time (at a target), and he thought about how Batman no longer carries a gun. This gave him the superhero aspect of Tigerman. He and his wife were planning to have children at the time, so parenthood came into the mix too. His wife runs a human rights charity and deals with torture and rendition; he had been thinking about the island of Diego Garcia (see Wikipedia here), a British-owned island in the central Indian Ocean where the US has a base and the CIA were rumoured to have landed rendition flights for refuelling – this gave him the island of Mancreu where the novel is based. Tigerman is his first novel to have a unity of place and time – the island circumscribes the whole thing and the action all takes place over a few weeks.

Nick read us an extract from the novel, a really funny passage which didn’t spoil the plot for those who hadn’t read the book. There is a lot of humour in this novel – and it was one of the passages I’d marked down to quote from later. When I read the novel, I saw echoes of Graham Greene, which I asked about, and Nick said he never thought about but is terribly flattered by the comparison whenever it gets mentioned.  The main character, Lester Ferris, is definitely a Greene type – he’s a British Army sergeant – left behind to represent British interests once the embassy staff have gone – Lester being a soldier is used to obeying orders, and is told not to look too closely at what is going on around the island, but living there does affect him – particularly when he meets and befriends a boy who could be the son he’s never had.

Harkaway also talked more about twitter – he is an enthusiast, but doesn’t let it distract him from writing – noises from his young children are more likely to do that.  He does read digital text, but isn’t “pleased by it.”  You just can’t beat the feel of a book – indeed when he signed my hardbacks of Tigerman and Angelmaker, he stroked the cover and end-papers of Angelmaker saying it was such a lovely design – it is.

If you ever get the chance to hear Nick talk, do go – he is a fascinating speaker and a lovely chap to boot.  Tigerman was a five star read for me – and I’ve got his previous two novels still to read – Yay!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway – published May 2014 by William Heinemann, hardback, 384 pages.
The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age by Nick Harkaway, paperback.

Not reading about The Beautiful Game!

Brazil 2014 – The World Cup starts today!

CPFCOh woe, woe and thrice woe on the telly front for the next month! I come from a family of fanatic Crystal Palace FC supporters who will all be glued to their TVs watching the World Cup. Admittedly, if England were to get into the knock-out stages, even I would probably watch bits of it – but only England, and only the later matches.

Similarly, I have no desire to read any novel where football – that is soccer, rather than an other national variant, is the main subject. Surprisingly, football novels of any note are not very thick on the ground so this list of books I’m not going to read isn’t very long. (Please note the titles do go through to my Amazon affiliate link just in case you are interested – I’ll earn pennies!). I will not be reading:

Red-or-DeadThe Damned Utd nor Red or Dead by David Peace.

The Damned Utd about Brian Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds Utd is legendary. I should add that I have seen (and enjoyed) the film (DVD, 2009), but that was about Michael Sheen’s amazing performance more than anything else.

Red or Dead is a novelisation of Liverpool FC’s long association with manager Bill Shankly, who famously said:

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.


puffin footballGoalkeepers are Different
 nor The Rise of Gerry Logan by Brian Glanville.

Glanville is perhaps the UK’s greatest writer about football including these novels.  I was amazed to find that the Gerry Logan book from 1965 is republished by Faber Finds and Franz Beckenbauer has declared it to be ‘the best book on football ever written’!  Apparently the character of Logan is based broadly on Danny Blanchflower.

Goalkeepers are different is a children’s novel, and I expect my brother probably read it as a child, along with Glanville’s The Puffin Book of Football, which I remember seeing on his shelves.

The Arsenal Stadium Mysteryarsenal by Leonard R Gribble

This crime novel from the 1930s was adapted into a film (1939, DVD). It was perhaps the first feature football film and many Arsenal players from the 1938-9 season were included in the cast.  During a charity match between Arsenal and amateur side the Trojans, the Trojans’ key striker mysteriously collapses in full view of the capacity crowd – it transpires he was poisoned.  The film in particular appears to have been much loved.

venables 2venables 1They Used to Play on Grass by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams – or is it Gordon Williams and Terry Venables as on the original (right). They’ve switched the author’s order on later editions… I wonder why?!

Venables and Richards were also responsible for the crime detective Hazell – penning a trio of novels which were developed into a TV series in the 1970s starring Nicholas Ball – does anyone remember that?

footballfactoryThe Football Factory by John King.

This debut novel about a disaffected Chelsea fan who becomes a hooligan may be ground-breaking in a way, but when you look it up on Amazon, you’ll also find lots of memoirs by real-life yobs about their hooliganism inspired by it – not novels and not good.

fever-pitch* * * * *

My last inclusion on this short survey of football novels is not a novel, it’s a memoir and I couldn’t miss it out. If I ever do read a soccer book – this will be the one – and primarily for Nick Hornby’s writing.

The book is, of course, Fever Pitch  by Nick Hornby, and if I did read it, I would be sure to get it’s latest livery incarnated in the Penguin Modern Classics catalogue.

And so in the immortal words of Kenneth Wolstenholme as Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth goal in the 1966 World Cup final:

They think it’s all over, … it is now!

 

This novel is buzzing!

The Hive by Gill Hornby

hiveIt must have been quite daunting for Gill Hornby to publish her first novel – for she is the sister of the more famous Nick, and wife of best-selling author Robert Harris.  Now The Hive is out in paperback, she must be getting fed up of these facts being mentioned, as its a best-seller of her very own.

In The Hive, Hornby takes on female cliques of a particular kind – Mums of primary school aged children and the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) which fundraises for their schools. It’s a satire, but it’s also oh-so-close-to-the-truth!

I’ve done my stints on the PTA: at my daughter’s old school I was variously Secretary, Treasurer, Quizmaster, Fireworks supremo, Form Rep – you name it, I did it and I loved it, and I can honestly say that as a committee, we always got on brilliantly and worked as a team, managing to raise lots of money and have fun, (well, mostly!). The hardest part of doing anything was getting helpers on the night for things – even for just half an hour – putting out tables, chairs, clearing up, directing parking etc. (and selling tickets for anything to the teachers!) Now she’s at senior school, and fundraising is limited to a couple of annual events, so I’m having a rest from being on that kind of committee. Been there, done that…

It’s the start of a new year at St Ambrose, a C of E primary school. New year, new headmaster too; Mr Orchard has plans. Meanwhile, in the playground Bea is making an announcement…

‘I have been asked…’ she paused, ‘by the new head …’ the words ruffled through the gathering crowd, ‘to pick a team.’ She was on tiptoes, but there really was no need. Beatrice Stuart was the tallest of them all by far.
Rachel, sinking back against the sun-trap wall of the pre-fab classroom, looked on and smiled. Here we go again, she thought. New year, new project. What was Bea going to rope her in for now? She watched as the keenos swarmed to the tree and clustered around. Their display of communal enthusiasm left her with little choice but to stay put, right there, keep her distance. She could sit this one out, surely. She was bound to hear all about it from Bea later. She would wait here. They would be walking out together in a minute. They always did.

Except that Bea doesn’t ask Rachel. She walks off without her, and Rachel realises that not only has she not seen Bea during the summer holidays, that she hasn’t seen her since Rachel’s husband Chris walked off leaving her for a younger model.

When Bea’s fundraising committee meets, they find a willing volunteer in Heather to be the secretary and she takes copious minutes. Bea makes herself chairperson and doesn’t even let the Headmaster get a word in edgeways about what he’d like them to fundraise for. Separate from the Parents Association (PASTA) They are to call themselves COSTA – the Committee of St Ambrose, and will host a lunch ladder, gourmet gamble raffle and a car-boot sale. It’s not long before Bea’s feathers are ruffled though for in a subsequent meeting newbie Deborah, who likes to be called Bubba, offers to host a ball in her garden…

Rachel finds herself partly happy, partly annoyed about her exclusion. Although Rachel walks to school with Heather and their daughters, Heather worships Bea and isn’t her best source of information, but she can rely on Georgie to update her. You can imagine the oneupmanship that’s going to ensue: Bea doesn’t want the ball to be a success, Heather’s tendency to micro-manage gets ever more irritating, events become invitation only, the headmaster is single, and in thus in need of a good woman … and so it goes on.

The novel is mostly seen from Rachel’s point of view and I could sympathise with her having to get to grips with being newly single again. My favourite character, however, was Georgie. She’s given up work to be a full-time mum and is happiest with a baby at her hip. She lives in domestic squalor on a farm and is totally in love with her husband and he with her. Their kitchen is perennially untidy and muddy, but she can whip up a healthy meal in minutes with home-grown produce. Georgie is very straight-talking, and always diving out for a fag break as an excuse to avoid boredom.

It’s not all fun and games though. As with any group of families thrust together by circumstances, there will be friendships made and broken, issues to deal with like bullying between their kids, and occasionally tragedy and illness. Although the story is a broad comedy for the most part, Hornby does bring suitable gravitas to the serious bits, before diving back in to make fun of some of the others’ reactions to them.

The dialogue can be hilarious. She captures that tendency of a clique of women who all carry on their own conversations at the same time, while not really listening to anything anyone else is saying well. All the stereotypes of mum are present and correct and their fawning over Bea is almost sickening – vying to take their turns to collect Bea’s children when Bea announces that she now has a ‘job’.  Rachel is a bit weak, but I can understand her stasis having been through it myself.

The bee analogy works well for this group. The queen bee and her faithful workers, who will eventually decide that the queen is past it and cultivate a new leader. Hornby works the bee theory in rather too obviously though a) by making Rachel’s mother a beekeeper, and b) you’ll also either like or loathe the character names – Bea, Heather, Clover, Melissa and of course Mr Orchard… I was of the like persuasion in this case.

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s novels – which tend to look at life mostly from a male perspective.  His sister has given us the female one – it’s overdone, but the premise is great and I enjoyed reading it for the most part. Newly out in paperback, this is an undemanding summer read. (6.5/10)

I’d just like to finish by saying that all schools need volunteers to help in many ways from running events and fundraising to helping out on school trips. I found it a rewarding experience, and you don’t need to get as involved as I did – any help is always appreciated – and real life at the school gates is, in my experience, much nicer than this.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Hiveby Gill Hornby. Pub 2013. Abacus paperback 384 pages.

A’s HoB Q&A – Part Two ‘the science bit’

Book questionI challenged you to ask me questions and you did … see the previous post for a variety of bookish and Oxfordian answers. Today it’s time to answer the science questions that you asked me – and I shall go in reverse order.

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked: What is your favourite chemical element?

Really, I can’t better David Nolan’s stunning pun of a reply “If I had a favourite chemical element, I think it would change periodically!”, but here are a few thoughts…
I could say ‘Oxygen‘ a) because we can’t live without it and b) when you burn Sulphur in Oxygen it has a wonderful blue flame – but I won’t.
I could say ‘Carbon‘ – another necessary element for life, also because it’s graphite, and diamonds, and Buckminsterfullerene (C60 – a carbon molecule shaped like a football made up of hexagons and pentagons).
I could say ‘Tin‘ because when you take a rod of it and bend it, it ‘cries’ – it’s a distinctive sound, made by all the dislocations (faults in the crystal structure) propagating through the material.
I could say ‘Silver’, ‘Gold’ or ‘Platinum’ because of their beauty when wrought into jewels, relative inertness and worth – but that’s far too obvious.

Today, my favourite element is aluminium.

The third most abundant element (after Oxygen and Silicon). I chose it because an aluminium alloy known as RR58 was used to build the airframe of Concorde – crucially it oxidises to give a microscopic layer of alumina – aluminium oxide on the skin which crucially aids the structural strength. I learnt that fact in my very first lecture on metallurgy at university.

itv concorde

Susan Osborne asked: Can you recommend science writers for readers like myself who are reasonably intelligent but ignorant of the sciences? I realise that its far too wide a subject to recommend for all branches of science. Thanks!

I enjoy reading popular science books, but don’t have time to read and review enough of them. Two I have blogged about are Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik on materials science, and Bad Science by Ben Goldacre which blows the lid off pharmaceuticals – from drug trials to homeopathy.

Here are a few more great science books/writers you might consider (titles go to my affiliate link).

That’s just a few off the top of my head. Everyone else – please add your favourite science books.

And finally, that fiendish feline Dark Puss asked: Why is it still perceived to be OK to be uninterested in science but not OK to be uninterested in literature (if you wish to be seen as an “educated” person)? How did we get to that point in our world?

There are so many facets to think about in answering this question. Here are a few thoughts for further discussion if you’d like.  I warn you I’m going to make sweeping generalisations though and it’s going to sound simplistic …

Firstly, nearly all the big discoveries and advances in science these days are so high tech or on the quantum level that comprehending them in any meaningful way is beyond most people, so they just turn off unless it’s Brian ‘Smiley’ Cox on the tellybox. In the days before we’d discovered most of the easy stuff, the man on the Clapham omnibus had half a chance of understanding some of it.  Also more people worked in engineering and factories, surrounded by science and technology, there were more apprentices, etc etc – so more chance that some science would brush off on people perhaps. We don’t have the everyday exposure to science and engineering in the way we used to through manufacturing, so science is perceived as difficult, made especially so as maths is devalued as being not useful by those who don’t realise that without it we can’t make progress. Secondly, secondary schools struggle to get good science teachers. Less hands on science gets done because of uninterested pupils playing up etc. – less practicals, more demonstrations. Teachers don’t necessarily have time to go beyond the curriculum. The kids see science as a difficult subject, so possibly pick easier options. Uninterest in science is ingrained early – but paradoxically, we’re all better at using it in our everyday lives – we just don’t realise.

However, if you compare the amount of hours of telly that is science-based against the hours that is literature based (non-drama), science wins hands down. Nature programmes and medical programmes abound, physics gets some attention – but ‘The sky at night’ is still going strong, in fact chemistry is probably the poor relation in science programming. Literature is mainly a specialist channel or late-night subject.

It probably boils down to the fact that even if you read rubbish, it is easy to talk about a book, whereas science requires education of a sort – or enough to ask the question. Basically, Dark Puss, I have no real idea how to answer your question – but it was fun thinking about it!

 

 

A’s HoB Q&A – The Answers – Part one!

Book questionThank you for asking some great questions – some of which required a lot of thought to answer!

I’m splitting my answers into two posts – the specific science questions will get their own treatment in a day or two, but here are my answers to all the rest – and do feel free to add your two pennyworth to the discussion:

Dark Puss asked: Why are so many readers of fiction keen to say that they don’t read “Science Fiction” (or indeed “Romantic Fiction”)? Surely there are good books, average books and poor books and some deal with romance and some with a different sort of imaginary world. Why the desire to categorise and is it ever helpful?
If we disregard quality of writing and just concentrate on categorisation or genre, I think there are pros and cons to this issue:
My local indie bookshop did an experiment to see if integrating all the crime and SF&F novels into one big fiction selection made a difference. It did – fans of those types of novels couldn’t find their preferred fare and didn’t buy any books – so they sorted them back again. I use tags for genre on my book reviews so I can find similar types of books easily. These sorts of categorisation are helpful.
It’s less clear with some types of book however whether categorisation is useful. For instance, the crossover appeal of many YA titles these days is increasing, but many adult readers still don’t want to read what they perceive of as children’s books. But, put a YA book with the adult novels rather than on the YA shelves, and it will sell to adults.
Variety is the key to my reading – I try not to read similar books one after the other. I read across genres quite widely – yet ‘romance’, ‘Chick-lit’, or ‘commercial women’s fiction’ – whatever you want to call it, is a genre I rarely venture into. But that’s not because I don’t enjoy it – when I pick a good romantic novel, I love reading it. I do, however – whether true or not, perceive the majority of these titles published as not meeting my quality threshold for a good read – yes I can be a little snobby on occasion about what I read. (Ditto many popular thrillers like the one I read the other week, ‘Misery Memoirs’ too).
Which brings us back to quality – but that is another issue.  Dark Puss, you do pose some fiendish dilemmas!

quoyle1The shipping news by Annie Proulx - Random House 25th Anniversary editionKaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings asked: If you had to (or even could!) pick one desert island book, what would it be?
This is easy after the last question! I would pick The Shipping News by Annie Proulx which I re-read last year and reviewed here. It’s a book I’ve read several times, and I still love it. But vitally, each of the chapters is prefaced by an illustration from a book of knots – and knots will be useful (once I’ve managed to make some string or rope!).

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked a whole batch of questions:
1. Which book do you think is the most underrated?
That’s difficult for me, for I’m relatively easy to please generally. If you’d asked which book I think is the most overrated I’d have instantly replied back with The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho!
However, I do think that Ernest Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises is underrated because it is so literal and repetitive – in that the bunch drink, fight, make up, drink, fight, make up … His style instantly clicked with me though when we read this for book group back in 2007. Not everyone agreed.

2. If you had to go on the same holiday every year for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My immediate reaction was Provence or Sorrento – villa with a pool, good food and wine. But y’know, if I had to do it every year I’d be really bored. So I’ll have a staycation and plump for Cornwall (or Northumbria if Cornwall was cut off). I’d need a large cottage with all the modern accoutrements, sea-views, beach within a few minutes’ walk, good pubs and a chippy nearby, ideally a good bookshop in the nearest town. There’s plenty to do in either location – and I could take the cats…

3. Who would play you in the film of your life? Emma Thompson naturally (with soundtrack by Tracey Thorn of course).

4. Which is your favourite Oxford college?
I didn’t go to Oxford – I went to Imperial in London, and then I lived for ages in Cambridge (which I think is a more pretty and compact city). Now I live ten miles outside Oxford in Abingdon which I love. I’m still getting to know Oxford, but I’d have to say my favourite college is an unconventional choice. I am a fan of Modernism, so I’ll go for the Grade I listed and Arne Jacobsen designed St Catherine’s.  I went to a ball there many years ago before moving here and the dining hall was striking as the design detail goes down to the table lamps and cutlery, and trademark Jacobsen chairs.

5. A bit of a vague question, but I’d be interested to know how you go about writing a book review post – people’s different techniques and approaches always fascinate me.
As I read a book, I use lots of those sticky tabs to mark places I might want to refer to when I write the review, but when it gets to writing the review itself, it often takes a good deal of pondering to get started. I like to find a hook to hang the review on – the USP of my reading experience of that book – be it positive or negative. The hook dictates the style the review will take. Whilst thinking about that I’ll do the set-up bits – the title, the cover photo, other photos, the bit at the bottom – source and affiliate links. If inspiration still hasn’t come, I’ll type up the quotations I’ve picked, and start on some plot summary. Rarely do I start a review at the top and later arrive at the bottom. I tend to get a lot of typos this way though, as half-finished or edited thoughts sometimes get miss outed or left in with extraneous words… apologies for this. Sometimes I’ll nip in to tidy it up once posted – I am my own worst proof-reader, even in preview mode. I can’t dash off posts though. The better ones take at least two hours to write with more honing.
Thank you Simon!

snow childDenise asked: What’s the book you would most like to see turned into a film/TV series?
I think Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (see here) would make a wonderful film, as long as the question over whether Faina is real or imagined is never answered or given an American ending, ie: kept art-house.
Peter Wyngarde as Jason KingI would love to see a TV series of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, Rivers of London and its sequels. Shot on location, and given decent special effects. Slightly strangely perhaps, I see Inspector Nightingale as Peter Wyngarde playing Jason King back in the 1960s.

Queen of the Park asked: As a ‘passionate reader’ what do you love most about living in Oxford?
Firstly, I think I’m going to remove the word ‘passionate’ from my About me. It’s overused these days, especially on Masterchef and its ilk!
Now I’m going to commit a bit of a heresy, and say although I live near Oxford, I don’t actually know it that well despite living only ten miles from the centre in nearby Abingdon for over a dozen years now. I’ve never drunk at the Eagle and Child where the Inklings went, I’ve not been inside many of the colleges, etc. But: I have been to book events at the Sheldonian, exhibitions at the Bodleian Library and this year I went to my first events at the Literary Festival, I’ve eaten at Inspector Morse’s favourite pub The Trout, I’ve shopped at Blackwells many a time, and also met some lovely bookish Oxford people including Simon. I’d say Oxford has a lot still for me to discover as a reader!

Jane at Fleur in her world asked: How does being the mother of a daughter influence your reading?
That’s a wonderful question – but strangely, the answer is not a lot! I’ve always loved to read children’s books, I get a lot out of them, and I have a huge admiration for the best authors who create engaging works that don’t talk down to children and are just as well-written as novels for adults (often better, as they have to be more careful with language and sex etc).
faultMy daughter has singular reading habits. She positively dislikes any book with more than a hint of the paranormal or alien about it. When she chooses for herself (as opposed to school saying you must read a *insert genre here* over the hols) she enjoys reading two types of novel – teen romances and mysteries. I was surprised at the latter, but at the moment she likes books that give closure – the girl gets her boy, or the mystery is solved.
However, when I look at the YA shelves now, I do see them differently – thinking would Juliet like that, so she is beginning to influence me. Recently, she asked me if I had any John Green books – and I was able to say, ‘Yes!’

Jenny@Reading the End asked: Is there now, or has there ever been in your life, somebody whose book recommendations you absolutely trusted? If they say “read this” then you read it straight away, no questions asked?
That was certainly the case with my late Mum. We shared a lot of books and fiction-wise I know that anything she enjoyed I would too – but only for fiction though. And it mostly worked the other way around too, provided I left the quirky stuff I’m very fond of at home, I’d take her a bagful of books on a visit, and they’d all come back read with post-it notes on telling me what she thought – and we usually agreed.
I could swear that my local indie bookshop gets in quirky novels and puts them on display just in time for me to come in the shop and buy them too.’We only put that book out today,’ they say!

Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).